The violence flaring in Egypt following the ouster of President Mohamed Mursi by the military may have unintended consequences for Walid al-Khawaja’s kidneys.
For the last two years, al-Khawaja has needed to come to the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza for kidney failure treatment three times a week. Now he frets that the hospital could run out of the electricity needed to power his dialysis machine because the Egyptian military has destroyed dozens of tunnels that serve to smuggle supplies of fuel and other consumer goods into Gaza.
Smuggled fuel is critical to keep Gaza’s 27 hospitals running. Although Israel provides about one-third of the strip’s electricity needs, demand is about 100 megawatts greater than current production capacity, according to a 2012 United Nations report. Since the Islamic militant Hamas group took control in 2007, the single functioning power plant in Gaza enforces daily black-outs to cope with its deficit. That’s forced hospitals to use generators that rely on diesel-fuel, much of it from Egypt.
“Since the crisis started, my main worry has been that it can go on indefinitely and this makes me feel scared that I won’t be able to get my treatment,” al-Khawaja, 60, said as he lay on a hospital bed, clad in a traditional loose-fitting, brown Jalabiya robe. He is one of about 500 patients in Gaza who need dialysis, according to the World Health Organization.
Gaza’s 1.7 million residents have been under Israeli restrictions on the inflow of goods since Hamas gained control of the territory. Because the turmoil in Egypt partly cut off a key supply of fuel, as it did last year, the Palestinian Health Ministry is warning that 80 percent of reserves have been exhausted, leaving it with about one week’s worth of power back-up to run generators needed to keep essential emergency systems such as respirators and neonatal rooms functioning.
Limited supplies have been allowed to come in from Egypt and Israel in recent days to alleviate the crisis, said Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza City. Those amounts were able to give most hospitals a three-to-five-day cushion, said Abdel Nasser Soboh, acting head of the World Health Organization’s Gaza offices. Still, two hospitals reported this week that they were all but out of fuel reserves, Soboh said.
“We’re in the middle of a crisis that can lead to a major health and humanitarian debacle if enough amounts of fuel are not allowed soon,” al-Qedra said.
Though Gaza has experienced fuel shortages since 2007, this is the first time “the tunnels have closed almost entirely, cutting off alternative fuel sources,” Oxfam International spokeswoman Jo Harrison said in an e-mail. A “limited number of tunnels became operational on July 6,” though the situation remains fragile, Harrison said.
While the supply situation in Gaza is dire, Hamas may also be taking advantage of the situation to highlight the strip’s humanitarian crisis, said Mekhemer Abu Se’da, a political scientist at Al-Zahra University in Gaza City.
“For six years Gaza has been dependent on Egypt for construction materials and fuel because of the Israeli blockade,” Abu Se’da said. “As a result of that we do have shortages. But of course it also plays right into Hamas’ hand to make the situation in Gaza look like it’s on the verge of collapse.”
Hamas has “made a conscious decision” not to import most of its gas from Israel, according to Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel’s military coordination office for Gaza. Authorities in Gaza prefer smuggled Egyptian fuel for both political and economic reasons: Israeli fuel is more than two times costlier, according to Mahmoud Shawa, chairman of the Petroleum and Gas Owners Association of the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza health ministry said that most ambulances and aid vehicles no longer have enough fuel to operate and that hundreds of water wells may cease operating soon due to the severe shortage of fuels.
Since the strife began to unfold this month, Egyptian forces have destroyed six tunnels and all smuggling activities have stopped due to heavy security presence in the border, Mohamed Saeed, head of the North Sinai investigations department, said by telephone.
The Rafah crossing has been closed for five consecutive days through yesterday, he said on July 9. Egypt will partially reopen the crossing today, Hamas said on July 10, as the month of Ramadan began.
The destruction of the tunnels shows the Egyptian military sees the smuggling as a potential source of militant activities, said Mekhemer Abu Se’da, a political scientist at Al-Zahra University in Gaza City.
Israel has restricted the inflow of goods into Gaza since Hamas took control, saying imports such as construction materials can be used to build rockets, bunkers or bombs. Hamas’s charter doesn’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.
Al-Khawaja, the kidney patient, knows too well the cost of the political strife.
“I wish all the groups would disregard their feuds and differences and focus on securing the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people,” he said.